St Mary’s 12/5/19 4th of Easter 9.30am
Preacher – Mark Hart
How do you like being called a sheep? They aren’t known for their intelligence. Left to their own devices they are likely to go astray and get into danger. They need a shepherd who can give direction and lead them to safety and to pasture.
We have heard Jesus speak of himself as a shepherd. And his followers are the sheep, who recognise his voice and follow behind.
This image of God’s people as a flock is found throughout the Bible and it’s widely used in the Church. One of the names for clergy is ‘pastor’, and we will later sing ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’.
You may reasonably think that it doesn’t make it sound very attractive to be a Christian. If the price of safety is to give up your freedom and responsibility, is it worth it? And who says I can’t be grown up and make sensible decisions myself about what’s good for me? Doesn’t this kind of language show how religion is a way of keeping people under control?
In this Bible passage from John’s Gospel, not everyone is simply accepting what Jesus says. Some people are questioning. A good thing, you may say. They are thinking for themselves. They want evidence that this man is worth following. If they follow, they want to be clever sheep, who will be ready to agree or disagree with the shepherd, depending on their judgement.
But who are these doubters and critics who are putting Jesus on the spot? John calls them ‘the Jews’. Ah, so it’s not that they are free thinkers, you say, they are just as religious, but following a different guide. They oppose Jesus because he conflicts with their rules. If we read on, we hear that they pick up stones to stone Jesus because they are so incensed.
So it’s got worse. It’s not just that we have, on the one hand, ‘the Jews’ as John calls them, and on the other hand, the followers of Jesus, all equally sheep, unthinkingly following their different guides. It’s also that they are so insecure and defensive, so convinced that they have the truth and it’s their job to defend it, that they are on the edge of violence.
You say, well that’s only true one way. The Jews are threatening, but the followers of Jesus are not ready to harm the Jews. Just think about that again, and recall the history of the last 2000 years. Think about the appalling record of persecution, exclusion, hatred, and murder of the Jewish people by Christians over many centuries. And we live in times when antisemitism in our nation is a cancer, even in certain political parties and educational establishments.
And part of the problem has been John’s Gospel. Let me rephrase that. Part of the problem has been the way John’s Gospel has been read. It is full of references to ‘the Jews’ in a negative way, and there is the repeated phrase ‘fear of the Jews’. It’s not that the Gospel is anti-Semitic, but it has certainly been read that way. And even subconsciously it has fed distrust.
The Bible can be a dangerous book and today it is still read by Christians in a way which causes hatred or prejudice towards people who are Jewish or black or female or disabled or gay or poor or mentally ill or victims of abuse.
It’s not hard to see why many have turned away from organised religion, but don’t imagine you are freed from those dangers if you go it alone and look to no shepherd. You will always be following something, whether you’re aware of it or not. However self-made we think we are, we’re identified in all kinds of ways with particular groups and practices. And most significantly, there are always people we see as other, as different. And there is the opportunity for that deep and dark human instinct of distrust and suspicion to raise its head. History has no shortage of hatred and atrocity in the name of no religion.
Where then is John’s Gospel – his Good News? Listen to this phrase again: ‘no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand’. Jesus has been emphasising the need to follow, to believe. He has stressed what we must do if we are to have life. And then he appears to subvert that by saying ‘no-one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand’. You can’t even take yourself out. You’re in the grip of God’s love whether you like it or not.
And that is the very best news. They took up stones against Jesus. But he carried on loving them. They placed false charges against him and crucified him. And he prayed for their forgiveness.
I and the Father are one, said Jesus. And just as nothing could stop Jesus from loving his flock, so we therefore know that this is who God is. A love which is infinite, eternal and relentless.
And the difference that makes is this. This isn’t the God of my tribe. This love doesn’t set me against people who are different from me. It takes away fear. I don’t need to defend this God. My faith isn’t something I need to fight to preserve in the world. The truth of the God revealed in Jesus Christ is simply given and fixed, setting me free to give myself. Nothing and no-one is a threat to me and the love in which I am held.
Of course that was true of Jesus himself, the Son of God. He was held in the Father’s love, but it didn’t prevent him from being crucified. All analogies break down somewhere, and if you think being cared for as a sheep, and held in loving hands means we will never face trouble, that is naïve.
We are called to know God as Father just as Jesus did. But that means we share the same nature. We are to be grown up children who have learnt to love with the love in which we are held. To give ourselves as Christ gave himself for us. There’s nothing cosy and infantilising about that. That’s taking responsibility. It’s real freedom. And it’s the way Jesus Christ calls you to follow today.